By Jocelyn Gecker ,AP
MELBOURNE, Australia — Tradition is on the side of Victoria Azarenka, but the hot favorite to win this year’s Australian Open is Serena Williams.
At least, that was the slightly uncomfortable line of questioning Azarenka faced Sunday, on the eve of the Grand Slam event she has won for the past two years.
In tennis terms, 2013 started with the spotlight on Azarenka but it ended undeniably as the year of Serena Williams who is ranked No. 1 and riding the momentum of a spectacular year.
Everyone is talking about Williams, does that bother you? — the No. 2-ranked Azarenka was asked at a pre-tournament news conference. Slightly taken aback, the defending champion found herself on the defensive.
“I don’t really care about it, honestly,” Azarenka replied. “It’s a matter of playing tennis and giving your best on the court.”
Would you agree that Serena is “the one to beat” in Melbourne — came another question.
Azarenka paused. “Well, if you meet her, yes,” she smiled. Based on “her last season. Of course, everyone will be motivated to beat her.”
After an upset loss in last year’s Australian Open quarterfinals, Williams went into overdrive. She won 78 of her 82 matches in 2013 and collected 11 titles, including two majors. At the advanced age of 32, Williams is playing what some have described as the best tennis of her career — quite an accomplishment for a player with 17 Grand Slams titles, including five in Melbourne.
The year was less fruitful for 24-year-old Azarenka, who won two titles and was a finalist at the U.S. Open, where she lost to Williams.
The U.S Open was one of four finals Azarenka and Williams played last year. Azarenka won two of them, making her the only woman to beat Williams more than once in the season.
Williams made an early mark on 2014 by beating Azarenka at the Brisbane International final earlier this month, setting the tone for the Australian Open.
Williams called it the beginning of new rivalry in women’s tennis, which is in dire need of a few more.